Threat or opportunity? Transforming the wood energy sector

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This article was written by a social reporter. It has not been edited by the Forum organisers or partners, and represents the opinion of the individual author only.

Wood energy is critical for many communities in Sub-Saharan Africa as a way to cook food, clean water, and produce and sell charcoal as a source of income. On the other hand, the utilization of wood energy is responsible for 50% of forest degradation and 10-20% of forest destruction in the region.

For development practitioners working in Sub-Saharan Africa, the conflict between the need to utilize the resource and the need to protect the health of the ecosystems is obvious.

One question may weigh heavy on their minds, in particular: is there a way to transform the wood energy sector in a sustainable way to halt deforestation and land degradation? Can communities in Sub-Saharan Africa have their trees and burn them too?

At the Global Landscapes Forum, held in Paris in December alongside the UNFCCC COP 21 climate talks, a panel of experts discussed innovative plans to utilize sustainable wood energy as option for restoration.

When talking about the utilization of wood energy—or fuelwood and charcoal—rural and urban perspectives along the entire supply chain need to be taken into consideration. Why? Because, according to Mary Njenga, a Post-Doctoral Fellow with the World Agroforestry Center (ICRAF), “the way we convert wood into charcoal matters.”

According to Christina Seeberg-Elverfeldt, Policy Advisor, with the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), 50% of forest degradation and deforestation is a result of wood being extracted as an energy source in Sub-Sahara Africa. For ecosystems, it is a devastating development that needs to be challenged. For communities, it is a necessary part of daily life.

Fortunately, there are alternatives. Practical examples from Madagascar and Kenya were discussed by the panel as opportunities to provide communities with the wood energy they need without further degrading forests.

In the northern areas of Madagascar, a specific approach based on individual allocation of wood-energy afforestation plots to local households on degraded land in order to combat further degradation in nearby forested areas. In Kenya, an agroforestry project to grow trees on-farm is contributing to sustainable fuel wood supply for cooking, easing pressure on forest resources.

In both settings, wood energy consumption has been transformed into an opportunity to restore landscapes while also contributing to job creation and slowing deforestation.

The key to success seems to be a cross-sectorial approach along the entire value chain. Njenga, speaking from her years of practical experience, listed the following steps to transform current unsustainable fuel wood practices:

  • Sustainable management of wood production
  • Efficient wood to charcoal conversion technologies
  • Effective transportation
  • Improving marketing and partnership development
  • Efficient consumption technologies

For example: planting trees on degraded land can restore landscapes while providing wood for charcoal production and therefore halting illegal logging and increasing deforestation. And fuel-efficient stoves use approximately 40% less fuel while yielding 20% of charcoal and reducing emission, as well as requiring less biomass.

But can the wood energy sector be transformed by a cookstove? Absolutely, as one part of the multi-faceted solution. There is a lot of potential to create a sustainable and efficient fuel wood supply chain—but enabling such a transformation does not only include farmers. It also requires involvement from investors, governmental law enforcement and regulations, innovative policy solutions, as well as monitoring and evaluation frameworks.

Ensuring long-term food security and domestic energy in Sub-Saharan Africa requires, “environmental safeguards for production landscapes,” as Mark van der Wal, Senior Ecologist with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) summarized.

We cannot burn our wood and keep it too. We need to work with communities and transform our sources of wood energy together if we are to ease pressure on forests in a sustainable way, for a sustainable future and from a holistic perspective.